peril, and that she was deprived of information about her condition because of
rules issued by the bishops conference
that govern all Catholic health care in
the U.S. The rules—which Mercy and
its staff are required to follow—prohibit
abortion, and as a result, according to
Means’ lawyers, doctors would not give
up on the pregnancy.
The move to sue the bishops was unprecedented, and everyone from the
New York Times to the National Catholic
Register heralded the case as a new front
in the culture war over religious liberty,
gender equality and reproductive care—
a version of the same raging conflict that
will play out before the Supreme Court
next week when it hears arguments in the
Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Industries
contraception cases. Those cases challenge
the Affordable Care Act’s rules requiring
employers to provide birth-control benefits to their workers, even if the employers have religious objections.
When the Means suit was filed, the
bishops called the allegations “baseless”
and “misguided” and defended Catholic
health care’s “stellar history of caring for
mothers and infants.” Otherwise, though,
they were silent.
Now, the bishops and their attorneys
have followed up with a motion to dismiss the case, and ProPublica has taken
the first sustained look at their arguments.
The bishops, for the most part, have
chosen to avoid sweeping language about
constitutional rights and freedoms, instead focusing on the nitty-gritty procedural issues that are basic to high-stakes
civil litigation. They argue, essentially,
that the ACLU has chosen the wrong
venue—federal court in Detroit—to sue
(the USCCB is based in Washington
D.C.) and is mistaken in blaming the
USCCB for decisions made by individual
bishops in their own dioceses.
The arguments echo what some legal
scholars have been saying for some time:
that the lawsuit is at best a long-shot. A
hearing is scheduled for May on the motion to dismiss.
First some background: The ACLU
and women’s groups have been voic-
ing concern since the 1990s about the
growing role of Catholic health care op-
erations around the country and what
they see as the resulting threats posed to
women’s reproductive rights. Those com-
plaints have grown louder in recent years
as Catholic facilities have moved aggres-
sively to merge with secular hospitals and
reports have surfaced about the challeng-
es – some say contortions—that doctors
and nurses have sometimes had to face to
comply with church teachings on abor-
tion, birth control, and end-of-life care
while fulfilling their duty to patients.
Catholic hospitals now account for
about 16 percent of hospital beds in the
U.S. And in eight states—including Wash-
ington, Oregon, Iowa, and Missouri—
they control more than 30 percent of beds.
Ten of the 25 largest health-care networks
in the country are Catholic-sponsored.
The Means case touched a nerve because it seemed to bring together many
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